I swear it happens weekly. I open my mouth and some clerk or new patient or person on the street asks me where I am from. I feel like a transplant from a foreign land. Even though I left decades ago and have successfully eradicated the “ya’lls” and the “yonders” from my vernacular, my Southern upbringing comes through loud and clear. My move north did not erase my history. Although I try, hiding my background is impossible.My roots will not, cannot, be denied.
Here in the North, for obvious reasons, the South is not looked upon too kindly. These arguments aside, my accent alone gives way to question, maybe even judgment, and I am left sitting in my shame. Am I stupid? Did I grow-up with backwater ideas hailing from the trailer park? Am I small-minded, racist, conservative and overly-religious? My impulse is to get busy trying to prove myself. “Don’t write me off!” my insides scream. See me. See past my inflection. Give me a chance. I can hang with you Yankee intellectuals. I am worldly. I am not a mindless Southern Belle. I can contribute value. I am good enough.
Ridiculous, I know. But it is my story. And some of the stereotypes are true. I grew up with guns in the house. My brother even shot one through the floor once. We ate our share of fried chicken and grits. One grandmother made amazing homemade biscuits that I still cannot duplicate. The other grandmother set a mean table and needed three black helpers – the gardener, the cook and the housekeeper – to manage her world. We said grace before meals and dressed for church every Sunday. The daily choice was sweet or unsweet iced tea, even for young children. We spend weekends canoeing or watching SEC football. And no woman worked outside the home. They (we) were considered marriage material, beautiful window dressing for our good looks, not our minds.
I think it was my heart that noticed first. From a young age, I was suffocating. It was death by disconnection. I wanted a bigger world that talked to me, stimulated me, expanded me. I felt alone and did not have the words or the know-how to identify my predicament, much less fix it. I was surrounded by superficial nicety and put together beauty, but my heart longed for authenticity. Will someone stand up and talk about what is really going on here? I could not do pretend. I assumed that something must be wrong with me that everyone else could masquerade and I just could not stomach it.
And then there was my intellect. To my parents’ credit, they educated me well, sending me to the best private schools available. Originally, I am sure that the Harpeth Hall School was founded as a finishing school for Southern ladies. A societal necessity. But, even the South could not remain too long in the dark. At some point, the school became a launching pad for well-to-do families to provide their daughters opportunity. I am grateful to this day that my parents had such foresight.
But even there, I was more backwoods than most. (I guess I didn’t fit in either to the plaid skirt, prep school world.) I will never forget the middle school quiz bowl. The announcer read a series of vocabulary words to the competing panelists. The elected smarter girls on stage reeled off the definitions one by one, some of which I had never heard. And then the announcer said, “taxidermist.” The room grew silent. No one spoke. No one knew what that word meant. The announcer turned to the audience and asked if anyone knew what that word meant. I raised my then very shy hand. I knew what that word meant. Hell, we had a few on the family payroll that I knew by name.
Fast forward multiple decades. I have not lived south of the Mason-Dixon Line for a very long time. But when I get a chance to visit, there is a part of me, deep at the cellular level, that awakens and says “home.” Maybe it is the sound of the katydids or the sweet smell of freshly mowed green grass. My long ago emotions, tied to the place of my upbringing, rise with a vengeance and demand my sentimental attention.
Through the years, I have managed to willingly claim a part of the South in me. The art of setting an elegant table is important to me as is taking casseroles to my fallen-ill neighbors. There is something polite in my child’s “yes ma’am” and “no sir” that just sounds better than a sheer “yeah.” Dressing up a word to make it more kind goes a lot farther than aggression just because I can. Thus, maybe my Southern training wasn’t all bad. Maybe there is something there I can redeem and even want to hold onto.
Undeniably, like it or not, it is my story. I often find myself saying, I am not sure I like the path I took to get here, but I like the me now. And, I would certainly not be the me now without having spent 18 years wading barefoot in the creek and watching my Dad chase cows in the backyard.
Our life is like a blank wall, waiting to be filled with a 12′ x 12′ mural. Our experiences, stories, pain and joys are painted on there somewhere. We can try to draw over them or around them or make them into something else, but they cannot be expunged. We are the sum total of all our life’s encounters. The good news is that our life’s artwork is not complete until our journey ends. We can always add more to our mural which can transform the entirety of the composition. We are a continuous work in process.
I don’t know about you but that works for me. It engenders hope. It fortifies self-compassion to fight off my shame. It allows me the ability, on a good day, to fully embrace the life I have now. I am reminded of that old Crosby, Stills & Nash song – “If You Can’t be With the One You Love, Love the One You’re With.” I may not have the life I wanted, the life I dreamt of, but I am going to learn to love the life I have.
So, pass the biscuits and pour the iced tea. I’m gonna dig in, into all of it. Every last bite.